The Celtic Crossing
At first light, on the 26th September, 3 UK SUPers, Marie, Paul ‘PJ’ Simmons and Ben Fisher with Pierre Lopez from France on his prone paddle board, set off from Porthcurno just off the Lands End peninsula, on a 52km journey across to the Isles of Scilly. To take on the Celtic Crossing.
SUPboarder Team Rider Marie Buchanan was one of those 4 paddlers and became the first individual female paddler to attempt the crossing on a SUP, here’s her story….
For me the Isles of Scilly, an archipelago of islands situated 28 miles off mainland UK, hold a very special place in my heart, having spent many a family holiday exploring the Islands and their wonders in my childhood. Since falling in love with SUP in 2007, I have been longing to return to the Scillies to explore them on my SUP.
You may know me for my competitive nature and SUP racing endeavors, but there is also an adventurer in me! I love a bit of exploration and intrepidness on my SUP, and rarely turn down a good challenge! So, when I first heard about the Celtic Crossing, I new I had to do it! I wanted to become the first female to conquer the Celtic Crossing by SUP!
The Celtic Crossing and Challenge
The Celtic Crossing is Europe’s longest ocean paddle race, dreamt up and brought to life in 2014 by experienced ocean paddler Glenn Eldridge from Ocean Sports Centre, Cornwall.
Between the Isles of Scilly and Land’s End, the Celtic Sea claims some of the most dangerous stretches of water in the World. Well known for its treacherous currents around Land’s End, notoriously unpredictable weather, coupled with the fact that we were crossing one of Europe’s busiest shipping lanes.
This was going to be an epic journey, requiring ocean knowledge and paddling skills, mental and physical endurance and navigational skills.
Having successfully competed in the World’s longest SUP race (The 2013 11 Cities race in Holland, 220km over 5 consecutive days) I felt pretty confident that I would have the physical stamina to complete the 52km distance. I’d also had plenty of time paddling my 14ft Starboard ACE, (my chosen board for the crossing) & felt more than comfortable paddling it in bumpy, choppy, open sea conditions.
My biggest unknown was how I’d cope with the unusual feeling of not seeing land for several hours on end. I also wasn’t sure how my inexperienced navigational skills would get me safely to the Scillies without straying too far off course or perhaps missing the islands completely!
With an ideal ‘prevailing’ Southwesterly winds and swell, the 52km Celtic Crossing course was set to run with a from the Isles of Scilly to Sennen Cove, the first west facing beach just around the corner from Lands End on the far southwest tip of mainland UK. A good SW wind on race day would make for an epic 52km downwind run straight to Sennen, potentially giving us the cold-water equivalent to Hawaii’s world famous 32 mile Molukaii to Oahu (M2O) ocean.
During the week leading up to the crossing we were all watching the forecasts with heightened interest. As ever, we were at the mercy of Mother Nature, the weather and wind direction and strength could change everything…and it did!
In true unpredictable UK weather style, a ridge of High Pressure dominated the weekends’ weather forecast, killing any potential for low pressure driven Southwesterlies.
Luckily for us 4 paddle boarders, with Easterly winds forecast to be building all day on Saturday, rather than paddling for 52km into a head wind and chop, Glenn and his safety crew thankfully took the decision to run our crossing in reverse.
We now had to prepare for an early wake up on Saturday morning ready to set off to Scilly from our new start location, Porthcurno (a small beach just around the corner from Lands Ends & within yards of the same distance to the Scillies from Sennen) at first light.
On Saturday morning we woke at 4.30am. After trying to force a substantial amount of calories down, the four of us and our boards were taken to Porthcurno where we arrived at 6am in complete darkness! Conditions were completely calm with a heavy morning dew and temperatures in single figures, brrrrrrrr! We had half an hour for final equipment checks and to get ourselves & our kit onto the beach ready for a 6.30am start.
Although, each of us had been assigned our own personal rescue crew to escort us, I wanted to be as self sufficient as possible in order to keep my stoppage time to a minimum. My ace and myself were equipped with 2x flares, 1x PFD, whistle & fluorescent vest, leg leash, 2 x 2l hydration sacs filled with Torq energy drink (the same fuelling & hydration formula that had helped me win the 11 cities), 2 x GPS, 1 compass, energy gels.
Anticipating potentially a 6 plus hour light wind crossing, I opted against wearing any neoprene (to avoid overheating & dehydrating) in favour of breathable Lycra compression leggings & a thermal long sleeved top. A bag of spare clothes, including a reserve wetsuit and a spare paddle had been given to my safety crew the day before, just in case!
At first light we entered the water at Porthcurno, where we were greeted by a curious seal checking us out from the shoreline. The marine life theme continued throughout the crossing: each of us spotted a small shark at separate points and mid-crossing Paul was joined by between twenty and thirty playful dolphins for fifteen minutes or so.
Despite the lack of wind at 6.30am, the sea state was far from calm at the start. A definite Easterly swell made for a bumpy start, with swell bouncing off the surrounding cliffs. A good sign that there would hopefully be more wind on its way! I really hadn’t prepared myself for a 52km light wind, flat water slog!
We each checked in with our personal rescue crews with a wave and a thumbs up, then with a 2 minute countdown to signal our start, we were off! Next stop Isles of Scilly! The sun was quickly rising and as we passed Lands End and began to leave mainland UK behind, it was fully daylight, I was already starting to cook up in my thermal top. Paul and Ben had pulled ahead in this first half hour and were already starting to diverge, taking different courses into the Celtic Sea. Paul just ahead & more North with Ben heading further south.
Whilst they were still just within my sight, I made the tactical decision to stop quickly to whip off my thermal layers and pass it to my support boat. By the time I got going again, I had completely lost sight of Paul and his support boat. He must have smoked ahead! Not to worry, I still had Ben in my sights! Time to start navigating & working the bumps!
We negotiated the shipping lanes without any issues and adjusted to the unusual feeling of being out of sight of land in all directions for several hours whilst in the middle of the crossing, however, feeling at ease knowing that our support boat was never far behind!
As we ventured further into the crossing, to our delight, the ESE wind & swell were building nicely into a moderate breeze, giving us some nice bumps to play with. Putting in short sharp bursts of effort to pick up the best bumps, I was rewarded with nice long glides & extra speed, yippee!
With my compass bearing set to 254 degrees (WSW) taking us to Peninnis Head our ideal line of sight on St Mary’s, I needed to be careful to not get carried away riding bumps and speeding off too far downwind in a NW direction & taking me way off course. I certainly didn’t want to end up in Ireland!
Each time I picked up a bump I tried to ride it left or to keep as close to my WSW bearing as possible. I was aware that each time I linked up some good runners, I was heading about 10 degrees above (North) of my ideal bearing. To get back on track, I used the lulls to work similar amount of time/distance just below or just South of my bearing. I was actually zigzagging my way across to The Scillies!
Things were working well for me, slowly but surely closing the distance on Ben, until somewhere mid crossing in the middle of the Celtic crossing we were paddling side by side, exchanging huge smiles, thoroughly enjoying the Celtic sea!
To this point, I’d been so totally absorbed & tuned into the sea, concentrating on picking up & working the bumps and keeping to my compass bearing, I hadn’t even looked at my GPS or noticed the time passing. I was totally oblivious to the islands appearing on the horizon, until suddenly I could see them quite clearly! I was astonished that 4 hours had passed so quickly! I was having too much fun! Glenn’s words of advise to us in his pre-race briefing, was to try not to become fixated on the islands & to keep focused on the sea and working the bumps.
I couldn’t help but notice an orange dot appear on the horizon. After 5 mins, realising the orange dot wasn’t getting any closer and must have been traveling in the same direction, I figured it must be Paul! He wasn’t that far ahead! This and knowing Scilly was now within my reach, gave me a fresh surge of energy! Much needed energy as the final hour of the crossing was by far the toughest.
With the islands tantalisingly close, the final stint as we approached Peninnis Head to the South side of St Mary’s, was extremely challenging & slow going. The wind had backed more Southerly and was now side-on, adding to this, there was an increasingly strong current pushing against us as we navigated our way around the south side of St Mary’s. The water was extremely choppy and moving in all directions as it bounced off the shoreline. My legs had lost their springiness and starting to burn, feeling the effects of 5 hrs non-stop paddling on the open sea. Somehow, I managed to stay upright, all my training sessions paddling around headlands back home in choppy, tidal conditions was paying dividends.
After a final hard grind, I eventually rounded Penninis Head into calmer waters and onto the final home straight! I could finally relax for the first time in hours, enough to take in the beautiful familiar Scilly landscape. A few bays later and I could see the welcoming and familiar view of Hugh Town Bay, the Scillonian ferry and the finish line! I was thrilled to have finally made it back to Scilly and to have paddled there was a dream come true! As I crossed the finish, Paul was already on the shore dressed in dry clothes having come in first just 18mins ahead of myself in second place. Happy with that!
The whole journey seemed amazingly surreal! We only touched base on St Mary’s for an hour before we were whisked back to the mainland by RIB, to join & share the celebrations with the rest of the outrigger crews who’d completed the crossing in the reverse direction. A bumpy ride in the rib against the SE swell gave us a taste of what the Outriggers had endured and definitely highlighted my aching fatigued body, but far easier than paddling back would have been!
I am hugely grateful to Glenn, his family, all the rescue crews and the team of helpers for giving us the opportunity to realise our dreams and for making this a truly awesome & memorable experience!
I would like to thank Starboard for our ACE 14′ boards and Bolt paddles which worked perfectly in the bumps. Also thanks to Torq Energy and my Vest pac hydration system which kept me energised and hydrated for the entire crossing pretty much non-stop.
Words Marie Buchanan
The Celtic Crossing has given Marie a taste for adventure and she hopes to repeat the crossing in the reverse direction next year, hopefully with a perfect SW wind and swell. We hope that this event grows and becomes a fixture on the endurance athletes calendar and even that it encourages more races like this throughout Europe.
Every event or race has a results list and this particular event was the same. The three SUP paddlers that took part finished in:
PJ Simmons, also on a Starboard Ace in 5 hours 41 minutes
Marie Buchanan in 5 hours 59 minutes
Ben Fisher on a Naish Glide, 17′ in 6 hours 14 minutes.
Pierre Lopez on his Bark prone paddle board in 6 hours 38 minutes.
An incredible achievement for all.
Images Marie Buchanan, Jen Manning, Pierre Lopez